How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Myth of the Social Welfare State and Other False Economies of Free Market Capitalism

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich (John F. Kennedy)."

Contrary to popular cultural lip service, we are not all created equally. Some are tall. Some are short. Some are large and some are slight. A few have the gift of genetic beauty, while others do not. A few are born with precious metal tableware in their mouths, and many are born into poverty. We are unequal from birth and increasingly the circumstances established at that time will probably determine if we ever get a fair shot at success in life.

Compare the lives of two children in American, one born into poverty in an urban slum and the other born into privilege in the suburbs. From birth, the two children will experience very different realities. If he even survives his first year (babies born in the intercity in America have an infant mortality rate almost twice as high as other babies in America (1)), the child from the slum probably faces immediate disadvantages such as being born to a mother who received little or no prenatal care. Many intercity areas do not have grocery stores stocked with such basic food items as fresh fruit and vegetables. The underprivileged child will contend with inadequate nutrition from the minute of his birth. Surrounded on a daily basis by despair and/or violence, he will never know the feeling of security. He will grow up learning one has to embrace violence as a means of self-preservation, thus ensuring a vicious cycle of devastation.

When the child from the slums goes to school, he will attend an institution that is far inferior to most other schools in terms of academic standards. His stressed teachers will be underpaid and harried in overcrowded classrooms. Those students who cannot swim by themselves are left to sink. He will be further educationally disadvantaged by a prevalent culture that has become apathetic about the American dream. Why try to learn anything when you can’t go anywhere anyway? If by some miracle the child manages to rise above his environment, do well in school and get into college, he will be saddled with student loan debts that will hobble him for a significant portion of his working life.

The child born to prosperity has an entirely different experience in the world. Excellent prenatal care precedes his entry into the world, where for the first few months of his life his nutrition will be carefully monitored as he attends Mommy and Me classes. If his mother works, a thoroughly-screened and qualified nanny will be on hand to cater to his every whim.

During his primary years of schooling, he will be treated to a comprehensive private education, specifically-targeted to get him into the best college. He will have classrooms with student-teacher ratios that allow for individual attention. If he suffers from any hardship, his parents will employ tutors, counselors and specialists to make sure that he reaches his optimum potential. When he gets accepted into college, mummy and daddy will have an education fund available that will pay for all of his expenses.

As the child from the ghetto and the child of privilege enter adulthood to become productive members of society, who could insist the two are on equal footing? But that is exactly what free market advocates would have us do.

Invoking twisted Darwinian logic - which is particularly vexing since the same adherents almost always simultaneously dismiss the scientific fact of evolution – neoliberal dogma contends that our essential equality creates a level playing field in which the fittest will thrive and rise to the top of society. Those who do not prosper have nobody but themselves to blame. The poor are lazy and looking for a hand out. By offering the underprivileged basic human necessities, like shelter, food, clothing and a modest monthly stipend to live off, we are only encouraging sloth, so the theory goes.

Having spent a large portion of the past 20 years living and working in developing countries, I have spent a lot of time with poor people of all races. Unlike the conservative assessment, I discovered human beings almost universally want to contribute in meaningful ways to their communities. The poor are almost invariably hard working. Many hold down two or more grueling jobs. Perhaps the gravest insult is that heaved upon “welfare mothers.” Why is it okay for a wealthy woman to choose to be a stay at home mom, while a poor woman is expected to work in a menial job outside the home to make ends meet? In my life, I have encountered few souls whom I would consider to be “unemployable” or “lazy,” and the exceptional few are more likely to be the unwitting victims of mental illness rather than indolent good-for-nothings.

In the recent mid-term election, Republicans paid a lot of lip service to cutting government spending. A quick perusal of their targeted budget items include spending cuts in education, Medicaid, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Arts, The U.S. Agency for International Development. All in all, Republicans are proposing cuts of $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years in the name of austerity. We need to tighten our belts, they contend. But, there are no proposed cuts for subsidies to the wealthiest corporations on Earth, like Exxon. In fact, the economic burden born by the richest among us will be dramatically reduced in the form of tax cuts and credits. Apparently only the poor and middle class need to be austere in these pressing times.

The truth that is not widely reported by Republicans or the corporate-owned media is that not providing for the poor and underprivileged is a very misguided and false economy. The political sound bytes sound appealing. None of us wants to send our hard-earned tax dollars to human parasites who just want to mooch off the system. But the truth is that by not providing for the poor and underprivileged, we are creating a larger economic and societal burden for ourselves.

How desperate would you be as a parent if, in spite of all your efforts, you could not get a job, your unemployment insurance ran out, your rent was due, and you were out on the street with your children? Would you steal food or even someone’s wallet to put food in your children’s mouths? I would. In fact since President Clinton “reformed” the welfare system, crime has exploded and the number of individuals now in the corrections system, including those in jail, on probation and on parole, has doubled (2). With approximately 1 in every 100 Americans now in prison (1 in 31 is in the corrections system), the United States now has the unflattering distinction of having the largest documented per capita jail population on Earth (3). If a person is born into poverty, the statistics are even more grim. One in every 36 Hispanics and possibly as many as 1 in 15 African Americans is now jailed (4). Instead of writing welfare checks, we are sending money to the state penitentiaries. The average cost of imprisonment runs about $29 thousand annually per inmate, and this figure does not include the external costs of law enforcement and the judicial system.

Something about austerity doesn’t bode well for society. People who are desperate and disenfranchised by society have nothing to lose by becoming career criminals. Cutting aid to the poor is false economy and does not save taxpayers money. Such actions simply redirect society’s cash from charitable causes into the highly lucrative private prison industry. Who would you rather support? I personally would like to endow every child with every tool necessary to assure he reaches his maximum potential rather than leaving him to the proverbial dogs and supporting him as a career criminal for the rest of his life.

In reality, elite conservatives don’t really believe we are all equal. They think they are better than everyone else. They aren’t alone. All those people who elected the new Republican House of Representatives hoping to “cut spending” were also looking down their noses at the poor and underprivileged. Ironically, many of those same voters are not very well off themselves. While we can certainly blame these voters for their prejudicial attitudes, we also have to admit they are merely products of a culture that bases a person’s value on their net worth.

In the United States of America, all people are not equal, but in a moral and just society, everybody should have a right to equal treatment and opportunity. In a country that prides itself on these values, we should at least ensure that every child born in America has access to a safe, clean roof over his head, a good education, clean water, nutritious food, a safe environment, clean air and a college education if he is academically so-inclined. Until such a time that these basic necessities of human decency are met, we should spit in the faces of anyone who judge and condemn the poor to lives of misery from their elitist ivory towers.

References
1- Statistic from the World Wide Web at http://articles.cnn.com/2006-05-08/health/mothers.index_1_mortality-rate-death-rate-world-s-mothers?_s=PM:HEALTH
2- Statistics from Pew Research by Reuters on the World Wide Web at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5215TW20090302
3- Statistics from the World Wide Web at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/28cnd-prison.html
4- Ibid.

13 comments:

  1. Nice post. As a EU citizen living in the US and traveling back and forth at least once a year, I can see the differences in social well being. Cutting spending on the poorer members of society is penny wise and pound foolish as the example of the huge increase in prison costs and populations attest.

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  2. @anonymous, thank you for sharing your EU perspective. I lived in Europe for a few years in my youth, and think all Americans should be forced to live there for a few years so they can learn that socialism is not the same thing as fascism:)

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  3. Wow, just found your blog for the first time. You make some very compelling points in this post. Malnourishment is certainly a big factor for why many children born into poverty don't succeed in school. To play devil's advocate, however, whenever the state provides any form of social safety, there will always be free-riders. Take my brother, for example, who, for the past 3 years, has been gaming unemployment insurance benefits. What he's been able to do is work for 20 weeks, then go on UI for as long as he can, then work for 20 more weeks, then back to UI, and so on. The point is, there's always going to be lazy free-riders in the system, but you're right, most people born into extreme poverty are not unsuccessful because of laziness; they're unsuccessful because of social factors outside of their control. Check out my blog sometime.

    http://joeseydl.blogspot.com/

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  4. @jds09201, I would agree that there will always be some dregs that society has to drag along like your brother, but I think these people are a minority. We can choose whether we will pay unemployment insurance or the hefty cost of prison, but we will pay for them one way or another anyway. Sadly, people like your brother are held up by many on the political Right as the rule rather than the example; thus seeking to deprive those with misfortune through no fault of their own, the help they need to improve their lives. Thank you for your perspective.

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  5. I came across your blog this evening from the post you made regards DAVOS, Krugman's report. I'll become a regular reader gladly, in the months since the nov election so many of the "left/progressive are reflecting bitterness rather than see what is unfolding. The outcome reflected those that were motivated and organized to actually vote.I suppose its easier to blame those that don't see the world like we would want them than work harder. Though jds09201 comments regards his brother raises for me the question always of why bring it up unless one doesn't believe in social insurances. I wonder if a survey was done on those on the right that complain about social programs purchase insurances of all kinds. If they truly believe they won't as the very nature of insurance is "shared risk" Most in my experience tend to be over insured. Social security is labeled an entitlement to be despised but not a 700 plus billion dollar budget.

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  6. @Anonymous, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Hypocrisy has never been a problem for those on the Right. Note the Republican House that recently voted to repeal healthcare but are quite happy to carry on with their own government-sponsored health insurance. I also just learned that Ayn Rand, the darling of neoliberal capitalism, after spending a lifetime condemning Social Security and Medicare, happily collected both at the end of her life. Thank you for reading and I will look forward to a continued conversation.

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  7. Your points about the false economy of the use of resources is clearly demostrated in the case of Kelley Williams and her father in Akron Ohio. How can we tolerate a parent being jailed and added to the even growing lists of felons for the "crime" of struggling to provide her 2 children with a safe and quality education. Than taking her future from her as a future teacher.(http://www.ohio.com/hottopic/114372139.html) There has been a crime committed but it was not by her or her father. Those that think she is a criminal are at best sick or criminally insane.

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  8. @Wayne, the story of Kelley Williams is a testament to how seriously our contemporary culture has divided itself into classes, with the elite class maintaining their supremacy at any cost. I hope this issue sparks enough outrage in the public to start turning the situation around. Unless one is a millionaire, we are all potentially Kelley Williams. Thanks for the insight.

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  9. Well said. Anyone who believes that there is a level playing field out there clearly does not reside in the real world.

    Some other observations:

    -- I had the (mis)fortune of actually listening to Ayn Rand speak to a very small gathering. When I attempted to ask her a very simple question about her economic "theories" and how they account for events beyond one's control (e.g., Katrina; what insurance companies like to call "acts of God"), she was unable to answer because she didn't even understand the terms used in the question.

    -- There are indeed "human parasites", as you put it, in this world. The problem in our society is that those who are poor are held as typical and despicable (while they are neither), yet those who are rich (e.g., Paris Hilton) are actually applauded and rewarded for their lifestyles.

    -- Stories such as Kelley Williams' are indeed intended to put the "fear of God" into the non-elites, to keep them in line. In a broader way, the "War on Drugs" is intended to do much the same thing.

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  10. @David, I am currently struggling through Rand's Atlas Shrugged - torture for someone who appreciates good books. It amazes me that people worship this literary piece of garbage as economic gospel. Rand was obviously an extremely disturbed woman with an ax to grind. That anybody could praise the human attributes of selfishness and greed as righteous is a sad commentary on the state of our culture. Thank you for your perspective.

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  11. My condolences on your struggles with Atlas Shrugged -- I know what you mean. Given that, I thought you might be a bit cheered by this:

    “There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.”

    – “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Pate

    ;-)

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  12. @David, Great quote. Thanks for sharing.

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  13. You're welcome. Glad you liked it.

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